LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—When Louisville coach Rick Pitino looked at the schedule and saw the Cardinals would close Freedom Hall against Syracuse, he didn’t exactly argue.
Sure, Pitino would have preferred to send out the venerable gym against longtime rival Cincinnati, whose 44 trips to the oddly configured arena are the most by any opponent. Yet Pitino was fine with the Cardinals bidding farewell against the Orange.
Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“It was fine because they were picked like sixth or seventh in the league,” Pitino said. “Now we have the No. 1 team in the country coming in and they’re just burying people.”
While Pitino doesn’t exactly welcome the challenge, he appreciates the circumstances.
Perhaps it’s only right that one of college basketball’s palaces—a place that has hosted six national championship games, a handful of NCAA tournament regional finals and 683 Louisville victories—goes out in a game with so much on the line.
The Cardinals (19-11, 10-7 Big East) likely need a victory to assure themselves a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Orange (28-2, 15-2) can cap a remarkable regular season turnaround—remember, they lost to Division II LeMoyne in November—by putting a damper on Louisville’s going away party.
“It’s a fitting close to a great place,” Pitino said. “I think the two greatest places in college basketball are Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas plays, and Freedom Hall. It’s Wrigley field. It’s Fenway Park. It’s the most charming, cozy place in basketball.”
The Cardinals will move to a sparkling new downtown facility next fall, one with all the modern amenities and luxury suites but none of the nostalgia.
“There isn’t a bad seat in the place,” said former Louisville coach Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to two national titles and whose name adorns the court. “The atmosphere, there’s nothing like it.”
Crum would know. He first came to Freedom Hall as an assistant coach under UCLA’s John Wooden in 1969, helping the Bruins beat Purdue for the NCAA title.
For all of its dowdy surroundings—the arena is placed in the middle of the state fairgrounds and sandwiched between two massive wings that house everything from motorcycle conventions to tractor pulls and animal shows—Freedom Hall has never lost its ability to create magic.
Pitino stamped himself as one of the game’s top young coaches in 1987 when he led Providence to an upset of Georgetown in the NCAA tournament regional final at the Hall. He’s led Louisville back to prominence on the same floor, including the Big East regular season and tournament titles a year ago.
Saturday, however, is no time to get nostalgic.
Save that for the introduction of the 1980 and ’86 national championship teams and the bevy of All-Americans and stars who will make one final bow during pregame and postgame ceremonies.
For Pitino and the Cardinals there is only the precious present. They were able to revive their season with an unlikely 66-60 win at the Carrier Dome on Valentine’s Day, only to follow it up with three more weeks of roller coaster play.
They lost to Georgetown at home by 10 before knocking off Connecticut on the road, only to follow it up with a 21-point loss at Marquette on Tuesday. The game was so discouraging Pitino didn’t even bother making his team relive it through video.
“I wanted to say in a good mood,” he said with a laugh.
It may be difficult against the Orange, who have a habit of frustrating opponents with their 2-3 zone and their ability to get out in transition.
It’s a puzzle the Cardinals solved at the Carrier Dome, holding star Wesley Johnson to 14 points on 5-of-20 shooting while keeping the Orange to their second-lowest total of the season.
If the Cardinals can do it again, they’re almost assured of heading back to the NCAAs, no small feat considering Louisville’s early losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina.
“We know if we win this game we’ll be in the tournament,” said senior forward Reggie Delk, one of four seniors playing their final home game. “It gives us advantage because we know we can beat them. At the same time we need to go out there and play the same way.”
It’ll mean providing consistent effort, something that’s been difficult this year. Pitino is done trying to figure the Cardinals out.
“I don’t have concrete answers to this basketball team,” he said.
He’s hoping to find a few on Saturday, when Louisville will attempt to provide one more lasting memory in a gym full of them.
“It will be very nostalgic,” he said. “It will be a great memory for all of us to say we were a part of.”